Radio Freefall, Matthew Jarpe

Tor, 2007, 318 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7654-1784-1

As a reviewer, I’m not too fond of using “It’s a first novel” as an explanation. After all, I don’t know how many previous novels sleep in the trunk of the author. Excusing something as “a first novel” seems to trivialize the effort of the author who has worked so hard on a book, and sets up expectations for follow-ups. It ignores the efforts and knowledge of the book’s editor, and presupposes a bunch of easy fixes that more experienced authors could see –as if even first-time authors didn’t know how to read. So I try to avoid the expression, except as a strict description.

And yet, and yet, the first thing that comes to mind when I want to write about Radio Freefall is… it’s a first novel. It’s a likable and engaging mess of a book that shows why Matthew Jarpe will be one to watch even if he has trouble putting the pieces of his story together. It’s full of surprises, and some of them leave a better impression than others.

The first surprise is set up by the book’s marketing. From the cover blurb, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a novel in the Moon is a Harsh Mistress mold, with a plucky bunch of orbiting rag-tag rebels showing one or two things to an overbearing Earth regime thanks to the power of rock-and-roll. Allen Steele blended with Heinlein, or something like that.

Now imagine the shift as you realize that this is really a rock-and-roll novel with a third act set in space.

I’m not complaining. Not at this point, anyway. I’m unaccountably fascinated by rock-and-roll novels, and seeing Radio Freefall turn into one is like finding a particularly enjoyable prize in a cereal box. The trials and tribulations of the Snake Vendors as they instantly become the world’s biggest rock band (led by a mysterious bluesman known as “Aqualung”) make up for instantly compelling reading. Despite rock-and-roll’s declining stature in today’s pop-culture, there’s still something quasi-mythic about touring rock bands, and that’s even before they start battling evil world governments.

It follows that as a good rock-and-roll novel, Radio Freefall is also a story of revolution. In Jarpe’s thinly-imagined future, someone has taken control of the Internet, and that logically leads to a stifling and unaccountable world government that must be defeated. But I’m getting ahead of my snark: for the moment, it’s enough to imagine a renegade rock band led by a man with elite tech skillz, facing down an all-powerful enemy. Concept albums have been put together for lesser reasons.

Before getting into the reasons why Radio Freefall doesn’t work as well as it should, let’s take a look at what does work: The rock-and-roll theme certainly brings a lot to the novel, and gives it a unique feel that’s not to be found elsewhere in recent SF. It helps that Jarpe knows how to write clean and compelling prose: On a sentence-by-sentence writing level, this is probably the most steadily interesting debut novel I’ve read this year. The characters are generally likable, even when they turn out to be unreasonably heroic figures. (It fits into the bigger-than-life rock-and-roll aesthetics.)

There’s so much to like here that it’s doubly frustrating to see when some elements just don’t work.

The most obvious problem is structural: After a bit more than half the novel spent on Earth, things change and abruptly bring us in orbit. The transition plot point is botched (remarkably, few people think of asking “where’s the body?”, and Jarpe’s hand-waved riot isn’t much of an explanation), but the entire novel does little to prepare readers for the venue change. Freefall should be a place we should be looking forward to visiting; instead, it feels like a surprise that’s not entirely welcome.

But the most grating problem is the ham-fisted way Jarpe provides antagonists for his story. The cheap shots at world government don’t bother me; after, the novel is written by an American. But the “Unification” model is so badly broken in concept that it never feels like a credible threat. Worse yet; it’s controlled by a single person who has found a way to take control of the Internet by stealing someone else’s work. Uh-huh. Compound the cartoonish villains with the pocket-universe problem (where all power in held by a handful of people who all somehow know one another) and Radio Freefall suffers from a severe credibility problem. It’s never too clear how much of the novel we’re meant to take seriously, and if we’re not, why the satire isn’t better handled.

And so I end with a diffuse impression of a novel with qualities that are overwhelmed by other parts of the novel running in all directions, a confused impression that is best described, for better of for worse, by the expression “a first novel”, immediately followed by “I’m looking forward to the next one.”

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